Philip Levine, Who Found Poetry On Detroit's Assembly Lines, Dies At 87 In his six-decade career, Levine found grace and beauty in the lives of working people, especially the people and places of his youth. He was a United States poet laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
NPR logo

Philip Levine, Who Found Poetry On Detroit's Assembly Lines, Dies At 87

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/384096472/386635278" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Philip Levine, Who Found Poetry On Detroit's Assembly Lines, Dies At 87

Philip Levine, Who Found Poetry On Detroit's Assembly Lines, Dies At 87

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/384096472/386635278" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's remember now poet Philip Levine who died over the weekend. In his 87 years, he reached the heights as America's Poet Laureate, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards. Yet his poems consistently revealed the poetry in the lives of working people, especially the people and places of his youth - the auto factories in working-class homes of Detroit. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In 2004, at the age of 76, Philip Levine told me his biggest literary influence was the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PHILIP LEVINE: He seemed able, in his best poetry, to find poetry almost anywhere - anywhere. And that was the big lesson I got from him - don't scorn your life just because it's not dramatic or it's impoverished or it looks dull or it's workaday. Don't scorn it. It is where poetry's taking place if you've got the sensitivity to see, if your eyes are open.

VITALE: Levine found poetry on the production line and in the after-hours meeting of two lovers working the graveyard shift.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

LEVINE: (Reading) He's been up late, she thinks. He's tired of the job, perhaps tired of their morning meetings. But then he bows from the waist and holds the door open for her to enter the diner, and a thick odor of bacon frying and new potatoes greets them both. And taking heart, she enters to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke to see if their booth is available.

TERRENCE RAFFERTY: If you're not paying attention, it can sound like just awfully good prose.

VITALE: Critic Terrence Rafferty says that's the artistry in Philip Levine's poetry.

RAFFERTY: As you hear it in your head, you know it's not prose. It has music. It has meter. It has subtle surprises in the diction and the thought of the poem.

VITALE: All of those things - and believability - are what made any poem a good poem for Philip Levine.

LEVINE: Well, the first thing that hits me is the language. Is it fresh? Is it resourceful? The second thing is the imagery. Does the work have the authority of lived experience? And if it has those two things, and then musically it's interesting, as a piece of rhythmic language, I'm hooked. I'm going. I'm off to the races.

VITALE: Levine tried to inspire that kind of enthusiasm in his students. Among other places, he taught at Cal State in Fresno for more than 30 years. Terrence Rafferty says what separated Levine from the rest of the pack were the details the poet observed assembling radiators and breaks for Cadillacs and Chevys and Packards.

RAFFERTY: His descriptions of working-class Detroit is something that hadn't been there before. It's not as if no one had ever written poems about workers before, clearly. But it's a piece of the world that had not been in poetry before.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

LEVINE: (Reading) So it was Saturday in the year of '48 in the very heart of the city of man where your Cadillac cars get manufactured. In truth all those people are dead. They've gone up to heaven singing "Time On My Hands" or "Begin The Beguine," and the Cadillacs have all gone back to Earth, and nothing that we made that night is worth more than me.

VITALE: Philip Levine started writing poems when he was 13 years old. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father died when he was 5. Levine said he lived in a noisy house on the outskirts of Detroit where a wartime freeze on construction left a large tracts of open land.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEVINE: And I used to go into this undeveloped land. I had a particular tree I loved - a copper beech. And I used to climb into the tree and start making up these poems - to the stars, to the rain, to the smell of the earth. And it was strange. It was like I had never enjoyed anything in my life so much. It was utterly thrilling. I began to live for it, to actually live for doing this.

VITALE: Levine's first book of poetry was published in 1963. He won a National Book Award in 1980, another a decade later, followed by a Pulitzer in 1995. He never stopped writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

LEVINE: (Reading) And the lovers, you ask? I wrote nothing about lovers. Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work, a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices of spent breath after eight hours of night work. Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?

VITALE: Philip Levine's poetry suggests that in the course of an ordinary American's life, such as his, there can be a kind of grace and beauty. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.